TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – ZooTampa is expanding during the ongoing pandemic, specifically focusing on endangered or threatened species in Florida, with a tease of what’s to come.
On Wednesday, the zoo broke ground on habitats for an increased location for endangered Florida panthers as well as black bears. The zoo is currently home to three black bears and three panthers, but all can’t be on display at the same time in their current exhibits.
The updated habitats will be home to all resident panthers and two bears in the beloved “Florida Wilds” area, the oldest portion of the park.
ZooTampa previously updated its habitats for endangered red wolves, along with skunks and owls.
The groundbreaking marked the anniversary of the location’s reopening as coronavirus restricts in the state of Florida began to lift.
“Aside from manatees, panthers [are] one of our key animals that we want to make sure that we rescue and rehab and release,” ZooTampa CEO and President Joe Couceiero confirmed, saying the zoo is working to educate visitors and inspire others to protect the species.
Couceiero confirmed in a statement at the event and in an interview with 8 On Your Side that “this is just the beginning,” and we should know about the zoo’s “master plan” for the next year – as well as the next five, 10, even 20 years – within the coming month.
Despite the pandemic, the CEO confirmed ZooTampa is on pace for a record year, in terms of both revenue and attendance.
“I have to admit, when we reopened on May 26, a year ago, I was confident but I wasn’t sure… But my goodness, what a tremendous year it’s been,” he stated.
Both Couciero and Florida Wilds Curator and Manager Molly Lippincott, confirmed a new hospital will not be added in addition to the new exhibits because they already had adequate care for their animals in their existing hospital. But they do indeed need some increased space.
“We actually currently have more animals than we’re able to have space so this is the opportunity to have all of them out at the same time and look at our future and be able to take in injured or sick animals down the road,” Lippincott said.
The expanded habitats will allow animal care specialists to educate the public and showcase the relationships they develop with the public.
“It’s going to make a future difference for those bears and panthers that we’re going to rescue. It will allow us an opportunity to rescue them if needed and house use there potentially,” Lippincott said.
Supporters of the effort include the Lykes and Stohler families, as well as Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the state of Florida itself.
ZooTampa is currently operating with regular hours from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Reservations are not required but are recommended, as the zoo is operating at reduced capacity.
Guests are not required to wear masks while inside the zoo, but per CDC guidelines, are “strongly encouraged” to be worn indoors by unvaccinated guests.
“Masks are required during our Signature Encounters, Giraffe Meet & Greet, Expedition Africa Safari Tram Ride & while in the tram queue line, and during certain animal experiences,” ZooTampa states on its website.
Masks and PPE will be worn by employees based on their job responsibilities and local and state guidance.